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Interview: Academy Award-winning director Asghar Farhadi on his film 'The Past'

Photo of Carlos Aguilar By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz December 17, 2013 at 10:30AM

Less than two years after winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with A Separation, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi returns with yet another astonishing family drama. In The Past his characters are forced to come to terms with their memories and regrets as the story unfolds like riveting mystery.
Academy Award-winning director Asghar Farhadi
Academy Award-winning director Asghar Farhadi

Less than two years after winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with A Separation, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi returns with yet another astonishing family drama. In The Past his characters are forced to come to terms with their memories and regrets as the story unfolds like riveting mystery. Set in France, this marks the first time the director makes a film outside of his native country and in a different language. However, his masterful storytelling is still as captivating and distinct. Farhadi has a particular vision incomparable with any other filmmaker working today.

His latest work stars Academy Award-nominated actress Bérénice Bejo in a complex and emotionally affecting role, for which she won the Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Undoubtedly, The Past is another masterwork from Farhadi, and definitely this writer's absolute favorite film of the year. Chosen to represent Iran once again at the Academy Awards, the brilliant director talk to us about his detailed writing process, working with actors, and what inspires him to create.

Read the Review of The Past HERE

Director Asghar Farhadi on the set of 'The Past'
Director Asghar Farhadi on the set of 'The Past'

Carlos Aguilar: One of the most fascinating things about this film is that you chose to create a story about the past, which entirely takes place in the present. No flashbacks, no dream sequences, just the characters dealing with the repercussions. Why did you choose to write the film in this manner?

Asghar Farhadi: There are two reasons why I chose this way of working, not going back to the past through flashbacks. One is that this is a realist film and in a realist work I can’t conceive that you could break the timeline.

The second thing is that, while we don’t have flashbacks, we nonetheless refer so frequently to the past in such a way that the spectators can construct the pat in their own mind.This is a more difficult film than my previous films because as the spectator is watching the film, he or she sees two films in fact. One is the film that is unfolding on the screen that takes place in the present, and the other film is the film that the viewer is constructing in their own mind of the past. That is to say that I believe the viewers now have a fairly complete picture of this family’s past. It was important to me to make a film where I don’t show the past but where the spectators can see the past.

Aguilar: Here in ‘The Past’ and in ‘A Separtion’, you crafted films about failed relationships. What attracts you to stories about the end of something?

Farhadi: In my opinion when you speak about relationships between people, you are actually talking about everything in their world because everything is contained in that relationship. I believe these relationships are very rich in material and many questions spring from them. This is not a matter of just a relationship between two individuals, it is something that can be expanded to contain things outside of that family.

Asghar Farhadi's 'The Past'
Asghar Farhadi's 'The Past'

Aguilar: How do you begin the writing process for a new film? What sort of inspiration ignites your creative process?

Farhadi : It varies with each film, the point of initiation so to speak. Looking back at my works now, it seems that in general the spark at the start is a memory, someone’s memory of an event. The memory resides in my mind over a period of years, and without me being aware of it, it keeps appearing to me in order to be transformed into a story. For instance for the film The Past, this is a memory that a friend of mine had told me had happened to him.

When he was telling me that story it wasn’t as though I thought “I’m going to make this into a film” but years later I came to believe “I want to make this film.” Hence there is a very long process from the first initial point until the point of writing. I have to transform that memory into a story in which my own preoccupations are reflected and contained. I try very hard to write in a very orderly and continual disciplined manner.

Aguilar: Why did you decide to tell this story in another country and in another language, given that this s the first time you have done it?

Farhadi: It was dictated by the story itself because it was the story of a man returning to a place from which he had been distant for a long time. He had been away for a long time. But why I picked France amongst all the other countries? There are several reasons. On the one hand there is the fact that my films are really seen in France, and as a result there came to be a relationship between me and those people, and that culture.

Bérénice Bejo in 'The Past'
Bérénice Bejo in 'The Past'

Another thing is that many Iranians of a progressive intellectual background ended up moving to France and living there. This is part of our contemporary Iranian history. And then, when you choose to make a film whose subject is the past, is best to choose a city in which to make it where the past is still present and visible.

Aguilar: Your films are subtle mysteries and you tend you tend to play with the viewer’s expectations. You create twists and reveal secrets in a very particular manner. How do you create these moments during the writing process?

Farhadi: It is very difficult to say how I do it because as I’m doing that, I’m not myself aware of what it is I’m doing. But I’m going to give you some guesses. One is that I’m always careful about the thing I’m writing to make sure a viewer can imagine it happening to themselves. The second point is that I like storytelling, and for storytelling you need a drama. And for there to be drama, you need twists, and by twists I mean the ability to constantly change the trajectory of the story.

I always feel that a viewer has an expectation about every moment of the film and where it’s going, so if I act against that, I’ve created a twist. In fact it becomes a kind of game with the expectations of the viewer. This is the superficial appearance. In the layer beneath there is a hidden theme. The result of each twist is that the judgment of the audience member is challenged.

Aguilar: How difficult was it for you to work with both French and Iranian actors in this film?

Farhadi : I employed the same methods that I’ve used with my actors in previous film here as well. Prior to shooting we always have several months of rehearsals. If you were to come to the room where we do our rehearsals you would probably imagine we are preparing for a play. But in the rehearsals what we rehearse is not what the actors are going to perform in the film. It’s more of an exercise for the actors to come to know the background of those characters. Because I write the screenplay entirely and precisely, there is the danger that an actor might feel that this finite role is being imposed on them. I want the actors to feel that this is their own role, and that they can go back to point zero and develop this character.

Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim in 'The Past'
Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim in 'The Past'

Aguilar: There are several instances in which the characters have conversation that are inaudible to the viewer as they happen behind glass doors or other separations. Subtly these scenes create an interesting tension. How do you decide where to place them in the film?

Farhaid: There is a rule I obey when inserting those kind of scenes, and that is to put them in places where the audience member is not aware of them, where they go unnoticed. This establishes a relationship with their unconscious. If in a moment you were to see a scene like that and go “the director did this thing” I would venture to say that it was not in the right position in the film so I try to move it to a place where it goes unnoticed.

Aguilar: Following all the success you had with “A Separation” do you feel there are more expectations from your work? How has this changed the way you make films?

Farhadi: No, I’m following the path that I was on before, and had I not had this success I would still be on this path. I haven’t yet reached the end of this path so there is no reason to change course. The previous successes have only made it more possible for viewers to better know my accent, my cinematic language, and my voice.

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